The Films of the Solo Beatles series will continue in March (hopefully). January turned out to be an unexpectedly busy month, so watching those films, taking notes, researching their production and other minutia, and then writing it all up in a breezy 5000+ words just wasn’t in the cards.
The following article originally appeared in the Idle Times zine, Issue #1 (Fall 2008). Please note that some strident opinions have softened or changed entirely over the last decade-and-a-half, and there are some turns of phrase I would not have chosen at a later point in my writing “career.”
“There were giants in the earth in those days, and also afterward…” — Genesis 6:4
“Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal blood-caked claw…” — Beowulf, l.983-89
Human beings are by nature vulnerable. We have no thick hide, no tusks (unfortunately — wouldn’t that be cool?), nor any natural camouflage. We’re just six-foot tubes of delicious pink meat. All we have to protect ourselves is our comparatively turbo-charged brains — which is a double-edged sword. We have the mental ability to dominate the natural world, but also the ability to scare ourselves by imagining the most unnatural horrors.
When primitive humans huddled around the fire, they told tales of what lurked beyond the sheltering ring of light. Shaggy or scaly things, with sharp claws and dripping fangs. Waiting for a dim-witted or simply unlucky Cro-Magnon to wander just far enough into the darkness…
The best monster movies tap into this primal fear that’s been hard-wired into our psyches. So, what truly defines a “monster movie”? First of all, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a “horror” movie (although it helps), it just needs to make us humans feel very, very defenseless. Monsters should be an external threat. None of this “the-worst-monster-is-inside-us” psychological bullshit. So Hannibal Lecter, Joan Crawford, and their ilk are out. (Sorry, Mommie Dearest fans.) Monsters are also a very corporeal threat. Scary as they can be, ghosts are not monsters. Not even if they can wreak havoc in the physical world. No poltergeists, demons that make you do unspeakable things with a crucifix, or Freddy Krugers. The jury’s still out on whatever the hell Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are. They are certainly physical, but their inability to be permanently killed suggests ghosts or “undead” as opposed to human. But it’s a moot point because 1) their movies are really shitty (except for the first Halloween), and 2) I am officially declaring the “Unkillable Slasher” film to be its own separate genre, and you can read all about it in the Things That Suck ‘zine. But not here.
So to sum up, a monster should be able to eat you, stomp on you, or at the very least, carry you off…
#5 — The Undead
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)*
The performance by Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster was a double triumph. It combined a simple sensitivity with the ever-present threat of hulking brutality. The make-up designed by Jack Pierce is positively iconic. No modern audience can think of the Monster without picturing the lank black hair over a squared-off skull, the green-tinted skin, the neck bolts — all from the imagination of Pierce. (Why green make-up? It photographed as the perfect shade of corpse-like gray on black-and-white film. Gray make-up would look too white. Some color stills were released to the press, and the Monster has been imagined as green ever since.)
Bride of Frankenstein ranks slightly above the 1931 original in most people’s opinion because it incorporates a lush score (like many early talkies, the original had no music), its eerily beautiful set design, and visionary director James Whale’s imagery and highly theatrical humor. For those of you who dig subtext, watch for all the religious themes and iconography, and the homosexual undercurrents. Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious might as well be credited as the first openly gay leading character in film history. (No, he doesn’t come right out and say it — this was 1935, after all. But some of his cleverly insinuating dialogue and the entire physicality of his performance left no one in any doubt, even in 1935.)
When it comes right down to it, as dated as they sometimes seem, all monster movies owe a tip of the hat to the classic Universal Studios monsters of the 1930s and ‘40s. Human-sized, awash in pathos, these creatures did not ask to be what they are — but if you cross them they will fuck you up.
#4 — The Hubris of Man
GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)
Saturday night/Sunday morning. 3 AM. Can’t sleep. Sandwiched between infomercials and increasingly desperate Girls Gone Wild ads, one can usually find an old monster movie. Count yourself lucky if it’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. (Count yourself cursed if it’s the 1998 travesty of a remake.) GKOM is the U.S. version of the 1954 Japanese original Gojira, about nuclear fallout that brings to life an enormous mutant dinosaur. The film was Americanized by toning down the bitter recriminations over Hiroshima, and adding footage of Raymond Burr as an American reporter (“Steve Martin ”) in Japan. He interacts with the Japanese cast through the use of body doubles and clever editing, and the process is surprisingly well done.
Despite the editor’s scissors’ careful elimination of too many references to a certain country using a certain weapon on a certain other country, make no mistake, Godzilla is clearly an atomic-powered monster. And he’s not the friendly nuclear dino of later sequels, defending the Home Islands against other mutant threats. No, in ‘56 he’s pissed. He rages, stomps, sinks ships, and burns thousands of innocents to a crisp with his radioactive halitosis. The lesson here is that there are Some Things In Which Man Is Not Meant To Meddle, and splitting the atom may just be one of them. Godzilla’s first appearance is quite late into the film, setting a pattern that all good monster movies of the future follow. Show little glimpses, show some damage and casualties, build up the tension before the big reveal. There’s no way to avoid the fact that the “big reveal” here reveals a guy in a rather cheap-looking rubber lizard suit, but if your powers of disbelief-suspension are strong enough, you’ll go along with it.
Collector’s Note: After decades of unavailability, the 1954 original can finally be obtained as a bonus disc included with the 2006 GKOM DVD. At the risk of angering purisits, it’s no better than the U.S. re-cut. It’s about 15 minutes longer, and most of that is emotional discussions about atomic energy.
#3 — The Thing From “Out There”
“In space, no one can hear you scream,” ran one of the greatest taglines in cinema history. We’re talking primal fear, remember, and fear of the dark is one of our most basic. It’s why those cavemen huddled close to that fire. It’s why the majority of children sleep with the soft glow of a favorite cartoon character glimmering in a nearby outlet. It’s why me, a grown-ass man, will pop on my bedroom TV after a particularly vivid nightmare. Why do we fear the dark? BECAUSE WE CAN’T FUCKING SEE ANYTHING IN IT. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Who knows what’s lurking where we can’t see. Escaped circus animals, psychotic dismemberment aficionados off their meds, and…monsters. There’s always that possibility. We know there’s “no such thing,” but that assuredness slips just a tad in the dark, doesn’t it? And what is outer space but airless, silent, eternal dark? Midnight that goes on to infinity. And our confident daytime knowledge that there’s no such thing as monsters isn’t worth a bronzed turd, because we don’t know what such things could be…out there.
Maybe aliens are gentle, elf-like beings with glowing fingertips and hearts, and big, expressive anime eyes. Or maybe aliens are slavering, nine-foot insectoid beasts with a double set of jaws and a taste for human flesh, not to mention the ability to move at blinding speeds and lay their eggs in live human hosts by ramming an ovipositor down their throats, which “hatch” several days later in Technicolor glory right as the human host is sitting down for a nice meal after recovering from the earlier (very traumatic) ovipositor incident.
Guess which one this movie’s about?Continue reading